The Rolling Stones
Bridges To Babylon
The Stones are like an old mangy dog. As much as you might sometimes think it should just lay down and die, you secretly hope the old mutt will surprise the vet and everyone else and keep on kicking, just for spite if not health. And The Stones certainly keep on kicking. But you can't, apparently, teach an old rock dog new tricks.
Bridges To Babylon is all about the past. This is a collection of roadhouse rock that would have sounded contemporary two decades ago. Don't look for hip synth loops or electronic percussion here. This is a live-sounding rock 'n' roll record. "Flip The Switch," "Low Down" and "Too Tight" share the sloppy, riffy guitar tongue of "Start Me Up," while "Anybody Seen My Baby," the hit single, features the band at its slow, dangerously growling best.
Mick Jagger remains one of rock's finest (and timeless) vocalists, and Keith Richards proves that you don't have to switch from mean three-chord hand slams to symphonic orchestra scoring after you pass the 40th birthday. Richards speaks his way through a couple of the disc's lesser numbers (including a mariachi reggage combo), which also include a couple of late album Jagger ballads. But while it's not always exciting and virtually never innovative, Bridges To Babylon proves that The Rolling Stones can still make a better rock record with their eyes closed and their legs lamed than most bands can with all the enthusiasm and spirit of youth. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Speaking of youth, Green Day have proven something with Nimrod, themselves. You really can sell the same album to the same record company three different times.
Nimrod sounds exactly like what you'd think a Green Day album should sound like — snottily phrased, frantic guitar strummed punk rock that is just too darned poppy to be denied. Like Dookie and Insomniac before it, Nimrod is chock full of spastic drum fills and bass runs, not to mention the heavy handed guitar attack.
The opening "Nice Guys Finish Last" leads seamlessly in to the bass strut of the single "Hitchin' A Ride" (Stray Cats on speed?) which then crashes into the disc's best track, "The Grouch," a sing-song character portrait of an old curmudgeon who thinks the world owes him. The band tries for a changeup mid-album; track 10, "Last Ride In," is an instrumental spaghetti western theme song waiting to happen, with a Marlboro theme guitar lead and understated Booker T. and the MGs drums (taking a clue from The Offspring, perhaps?).
On "Walking Alone," they bring in a sad moaning harmonica to vary things a bit and "King for a Day" has a goofy Dixieland stomp to it that's also out of character. Ultimately though, these few variances from Green Day's normal head slamming three-chord attack may not be enough. These 18 songs – totalling an epic 50 minutes – come across as a bit too much Green Day for one day (their last couple releases topped it at just over a half hour each). While Nimrod delivers its enjoyable share of crunchy unrelenting punk pop, if this rock dog doesn't learn some new tricks early in life, it won't make it to a middle aged mutt, let alone a Rolling Stone.
Can the leader of Chicago's Smashing Pumpkins, the sonic saviors of the '90s, save the flagging career of the leader of The Cars, Boston's musical heroes of the early '80s? Um, no. Billy Corgan manages to toughen up Ocasek's guitar sound on Troublizing, and the instrumental assistance of members of Hole, Bad Religion and Nada Surf doesn't hurt the attempt at modernizing either, but nothing can hide the fact that Ocasek's days of writing brilliantly buoying bop are ever farther in the past.
"The Next Right Moment," the disc's opener, gives a glinting reminder of the glory of Ocasek past. Fellow Cars member Greg Hawkes lends his sharp but spare keyboard lines to the mix of Corgan's distortion riff rally and it's like The Cars on a comeback trail. But what follows are a series of songs that, even when the guitars and drums are played hard and fast, sound like pale retreads of past creations. Ocasek's quirky vocal phrasing doesn't help; he sounds perpetually dated. As he sing-speaks his way through "Hang On Tight" it's like listening to latter day Dylan — Ocasek has become a caricature of himself.
When Corgan sings and plays on "Crashland Consequence," the gulf between styles old and new is readily apparent. Cut out Ocasek and you have the makings of a good song. The Pumpkins' flair comes through strongly on "People We Know," a waltz which features a keyboard and rhythm suspiciously similar to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness' "Twilight" side tracks "Lily" and "We Only Come Out At Night." But Corgan's credited writing contribution to the album, "Asia Minor" is a sloggingly tedious embarrassment to both mentor and student (though who is in which role is open to question here). While Troublizing is a good step up from Ocasek's terrible Fireball Zone disc of 1991, it never approaches the concentrated power of a "Shake It Up."
Forest For The Trees
Forest For The Trees
"Dream," the first track on (and first single from) this CD is one of the year's most savvy synergies of disparate sound. From a C&C Music Factory-esque rappy opening to trippy male vocals about dreaming to a bagpipe-backed chorus of female vocalists to a segueway of aboriginal rhythms, this song has got it all. It's catchy, intelligent mixed up fun. Ironically, this year's master single is actually more than three years old; the album was originally recorded for Geffen and has languished on the shelf while awaiting the return to mental health of its brainchild, Carl Stephenson.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album never manages to live up to the same brilliance as "Dream." When the followup track is a song with a chorus of "how, now, Infinite Cow," you know you're in trouble. All of the songs on Forest For The Trees are studio conglomerations of samples, funky beats and strange musical combinations, but most lack the trigger of connection that strangely clicks immediately in "Dream." But sonically, whether you like the music or not, it's a wow of an album. Sound effects abound. Bizarre talking samples and 360 degree shifts of aural atmosphere are the order of the hour. If you're not into listening to polished experimentation, at least buy the single.
The first thing that will strike you about Dan Bern's songs is that he sounds uncannily like a late '60s era Bob Dylan. The inflections are near perfect, the sing-song storytelling nature right on. The second thing, once you've swallowed the Dylan thing (a hard one for me, I must admit) is that Bern has a wicked sense of humor. In "Jerusalem" he talks about how all the religions seem to be waiting interminably for the coming of the messiah:
"I know how I hate to wait
like even for a bus or something
an important phone call
so I can imagine how impatient everyone must be getting
so I think it's time to reveal myself
I am the messiah, I am the messiah,"
he sings. And in "Talkin' Alien Abduction Blues" (a song from the Dog Boy Van EP) along with the occasional intake of sloppy harmonica he spins a goofy tale of being abducted by aliens and having a discussion about the tuning of his song repertoire. It's great fun, but he's not always a crack up. "Oklahoma" is a classic bardic folk song detailing the Oklahoma bombing, and "Kurt" revolves around the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Definitely worth a coffeehouse listen.
Pure, absolute bubblegum. Mix the silly chirpiness of latter day Book of Love with the modern dancehall beat of The Real McCoy and toss in a cutesy touch of Kylie Minogue and you've got an idea of what this Denmark pop sensation is all about. Lead singer Lene Grawford Nystrom has a girlish squeak that teases pleasantly atop Rene Dif's growly bass duets.
The backdrop is all B 96-FM synthesizer fare; danceable and percussive. "My Oh My" sounds like the band sat and listened to The Real McCoy's "Another Night" right before recording. The balladic strains of "Good Morning Sunshine" echo of Roxette heydays gone by. But it's the kitschy "Barbie Girl" percolator that has dials spinning all around the world (the band has already sold this album to 1 in 10 of its fellow Danes.) "Come on Barbie let's go party" Dif sings in Ken character counterpart to Nystrom's "you can brush my hair/undress me everywhere."
Plastic passion? Silly but saleable.